‘Understudy’ is serious backstage comedy

Take two young male actors with big egos, add a no-nonsense female stage manager and a rehearsal filled with conflict for a play that just can’t seem to get cranked up. The result?  Total chaos!

That’s the premise for “The Understudy,” by Theresa Rebeck. It’s Richland’s second fall production this season. Performances take place Nov. 16-19 at 7:30 p.m. in the Arena Theater in Fannin Hall, with a preview Nov. 15. The play was directed by drama professor Gregory Lush.  

Lush describes the play as a “serious backstage comedy.” 

“It’s grappling with some serious issues,” Lush said, but it’s fun and funny. It’s a one-act, full-length play in 90 minutes with no intermission. 

Three Richland drama students make up the cast:  Raied Makhamreh plays Jake, a Tom Cruise-type movie star; Will Frederick is Harry, a classically trained actor and Raven Lanuza-Brown as Roxanne, the stage manager who’s trying to keep order to get through the rehearsal, in spite of a multitude of disruptions. 

“We have characters who are performing another play that was supposedly written by Franz Kafka, a German novelist,” Lush said. “In the Kafka world, when we see this in a few scenes from this play, that is the play-within-the-play. In that world, everybody is in a state of existential crisis. They have no control over what is going on in their lives.”  

Lush said he was a huge Kafka fan when he was a kid and read all of the novelist’s works, which he found fascinating. He thought the students would have success with this play and that it would challenge the actors.  

As Jake and Harry disrupt the rehearsal to go to the bathroom, take a phone call, lose props or clash over line readings, Roxanne becomes more and more frustrated. Adding to the conflicts is the fact that she and Harry were engaged to be married and he dumped her two weeks before their wedding. Her dress is still in the closet and the wounds have not healed. 

“The two young men are competing in a way,” Lush said. “Anytime you have a three-character drama, it’s always about those power dynamics in that triangle … So that power dynamic is always shifting about who has the power in the scene, which I think is really exciting and it gives our young actors something really to dig into.” 

Lush said there’s both entertainment and laughs in “The Understudy,” as well as some deeper themes and meanings. 

“I would love if people left this play laughing, smiling and then they get in the car and they go, ‘oh, there was some serious stuff in there, too’ and really thought about thematically what was going on and hopefully varied and differing opinions about what that is. That is my hope,” he said. 

Lush said “The Understudy” is not for kids. It’s PG-13 and there’s quite a bit of foul language.